Pain is one of life’s mysteries. Our bodies have evolved to give us this sensation, which we will avoid at all costs. Pain is a warning. It tells us to remove our hands from the hot stove. In fact, our nervous system is built so that you will withdraw your hand before your brain has even registered the pain. Pain is a part of life we hate. But, it’s a necessary part of life. Those who cannot feel pain live in mortal danger succumbing to all sorts of injuries because their body doesn’t force them to stop doing something that is harming it.
When we’re in pain, all we want is for it to stop. We tend to become singularly focused on what is causing the pain. Pain is all-consuming. So, a common technique to deal with pain is to take our minds off of the pain. We put our minds anywhere else other than the source of our discomfort. We take ourselves away.
But, there is another way to manage pain. What if we did the exact opposite?
I am taking a mental fitness course, with the intent of becoming certified to lead others through it. I completed a seven-week intense course and I am now working on the advanced course. This course required rigorous mental work seven days a week. After just six weeks, I could feel a shift in the way I feel and think.
A couple of weeks ago the instructor spoke about using the technique to manage pain. Last night, I had the opportunity to put that into practice.
I am experiencing a pinched nerve or something in my hip that makes it extremely painful to walk. Getting down a flight of stairs is something I don’t even want to think about right now. This started two days ago and has intensified since. When I took off my pants to go to bed last night, I fully expected to see a big bruise on my hip. It’s sore to the touch. The pain radiates down my leg. The slightest movement in the wrong way sends a searing flash through my body. This made it rather difficult to sleep last night. All I could do was feel the pain, no matter which way I propped up my leg or shifted positions. Even thinking about moving caused me to tense up because I didn’t know which movement would bring on that flash.
Then, it hit me. This was an opportunity to practice my PQ reps, the base component of the mental fitness course I am taking. Another thing we are taught in the course is in every circumstance there is a gift and/or an opportunity. I would use this experience to practice. PQ reps are when we put all of our focus on bodily sensations, similar to meditation- but a very specific type of meditation.
There are two ways to do this for pain management, either focus on something other than the pain to try to distract myself or put all of my focus on the pain. I decided to do the latter.
With all the intensity I could muster, I directed my inner eye to the point that the pain was radiating from. I felt the muscles spasming in tiny quivers. I sense the warmth of the pain. Then, I thought, “What is pain exactly?” I know my brain tells me to avoid it and that it’s unpleasant. But, what is this sensation? So, I moved from a point of being absorbed by the pain to just observing it. As I did, its unpleasantness dropped. While the pain level remained unchanged, my feelings about it became neutral. It was just a sensation, certainly not pleasant. But, no longer unbearable. It was just there and I was just observing it.
This left me better off than I began. But, now I was focused on the sensation and not able to turn off my brain to go to sleep. So, I made another shift. I decided to think about something mundane from the previous day, nothing that would cause me on what I needed to do or have me thinking about what I could have done differently. I turned my attention to something I knew wouldn’t hold my attention for long, just to take it off of the sensation of the pain and allow me to fall asleep.
I woke up a few hours later. I turned my mind to the pain. It was gone. It was back to completely neutral, just that feeling you have when your leg doesn’t feel like it’s on fire- that is until I moved to get out of bed. Then, the pain was back. But, at least I had gotten a good night’s rest.
Today, my hip still hurts. So, today I’ve decided to take it easy. Rather than sitting in my chair in my office, I’m working on my laptop on the couch and grateful for the fact I got the laptop last week and can work from here. That’s the gratitude practice paying off. And, I’ve learned a little lesson about pain management and the effectiveness of this new technique.
Hi Brian. Thanks for sharing this experience and for the guidance to move toward, get curious about, stay with and find the gift in the pain. This is such a helpful reminder as we tend to want to turn away from it. I just found Grief 2 Growth and I’m really grateful for all the helpful content you put out.
I always get something important to take away every time I read one of your emails or listen to your podcast. I sincerely appreciate your honesty and insight. I’m so grateful that I’ve gotten to know about you and look to you as a teacher of sorts, even though we have never met. Thank you!
I’m glad you find my work useful.
Thanks for writing.